My last foray into politics was in 5th grade when I lost what I’m sure was a rigged election for class president. I’ve been writing about black political issues since I was a college freshman. But aside from voting or organizing the occasional protest, I’ve never been involved in electoral politics.
That was until March, when I decided to go out canvassing for Sen. Obama before the South Carolina primary. I met a woman who asked if I was interested in joining a delegate slate.
At the time, Obama’s victory was anything but certain an a kind of partisan paranoia was beginning to take hold in Atlanta where I live. Since delegates are not legally bound to vote for the candidate they pledge to support, more than a few of us worried that Obama could win the nomination only to see it slip away at the convention. John Lewis, the civil rights icon and congressman for my district, had endorsed Hillary Clinton (in contrast to 70 percent of his constituents who supported Obama). People began to see it as a sign that the party establishment was closing ranks. I didn’t want to be one of those people reduced to watching the convention and yelling at my television as party bigwigs handed the Democratic nomination over to Sen. Hillary Clinton.
So I decided to throw my hat into the ring to become a delegate. I would speak passionately, impress voters with my command of the issues and earn a front row seat to history in Denver. Easy enough, right?
In a normal election year, one or two hundred people show up for the caucus where the delegates are selected. Hopefuls are pretty much assured a slot if they bring family and a few friends to vote for them.
This was not a normal year. In total, 82 people competed for five positions.
In some ways, the campaign wasn’t much different than that election in 5th grade. Our slate schmoozed with voters. We bought Obama buttons in bulk and handed them out to area Democrats. I hit up the local Alpha Phi Alpha chapter. I began sending out fundraising e-mails to friends and set up a PayPal account to cover my expenses. Before long I started getting second and third generation donations from friends of friends of friends who had received my forwarded fundraising pitch.
I called in favors and got friends to form a street team for me, passing out my delegate flyers and information about the caucus (which were designed to be about the same size and color scheme as those party promotions people stick under your windshield at clubs).
The caucus was held on the grounds of a union hall in Atlanta. Place 1500 voters and 82 candidates desperate for their attention in one building and before long it will be hotter than a laundromat in the projects on a Saturday afternoon. Outside, the grounds started to resemble a political carnival. One candidate grabbed a bullhorn and climbed onto a table and began shouting his qualifications to the masses. Another had supporters handing out bottled water with his picture on the label. By lunchtime, there were candidates giving away free lunches in personalized campaign paper bags.
A delegate election is also a kind of odd devotional theater. The candidates each get three minutes to state their case for being elected. But because I was basically competing against people who also supported Obama, the only way to win the audience was to outdo the previous displays of candidate devotion.
One candidate traveled to three states to volunteer for Obama, which was impressive, until you heard that the next person had gone to seven. Another candidate wore a tie personally given to him by Barack himself; someone else had raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the campaign. I shamelessly bragged about the student volunteers I worked with and the articles I’d written supporting the senator. But the hands-down winner of the devotion-to-Obama award went to a candidate who rolled up to the microphone in a wheelchair, struggled to his feet and then leaned on one of his supporters. He’d broken his leg in a car accident, he announced, while driving cross-country to volunteer for Barack. (That pronouncement prompted another contender to mutter cynically that all the guy was missing was for the senator to “lay hands on him so he can run around the hall shouting ‘I’m HEALED!”)
At some point in the afternoon, I looked at the crowds gathered around a table filled with free sandwiches and realized I had seriously underestimated the importance of campaign swag. I took the nuclear option: I called my supporters and told them to buy every single donut at the neighborhood Krispy Kreme. An hour later, there were 300 voters high on glucose and happily reading my campaign literature. After the election ended, one person approached me and said that I’d lost his vote because I overlooked him when handing out the Krispy Kremes. I asked if he was joking. He looked at me blankly and said, “I voted for the other guy. He gave me a bagged lunch.” I had taken all kinds of scenarios into account, but I never considered the possibility that I might lose an election for being soft on the pastry issue.
The final tally came in nearly 12 hours after the election began. Our slate improbably won three of the five slots in the district.
Now that I am a delegate, there are layers of meaning that register with me at random moments, like the fact that the first black presidential nominee will give his acceptance speech on the 45th anniversary of the March on Washington, and I will be in the room. Sometimes I am struck by the responsibility and honor that goes along with casting a vote for the community I represent. But I’d be lying if I said that those were my first thoughts after they announced the results. More than anything, I thought that day as the delegate carnival dispersed, that democracy has been underestimated for its entertainment value.